FUJIAN TEA

Beijing, 16 September 2013

Last week, I was down in Fujian province. Tea connoisseurs will know the province, it being the home of black tea in China (as well as of white tea and oolong) and, as a result, of some of the most famous black tea brands, including the three Fujian Reds: Tanyang Gongfu, Zhenghe Gongfu, and Bailin Gongfu.

fujian red

I’ve written a previous post about a fourth black tea from Fujian, smoked this one, which was my grandmother’s, and now is my wife’s, favourite tea: Lapsang Souchong.

But I was not in Fujian to explore its tea. I was there to visit two factories. One produces spirulina, a family of blue-green algae, which in the last several decades has received a lot of press as a sort of miracle food for the undernourished, and which was already being eaten by the Aztecs back in the 16th Century when the Spaniards conquered them. I’ve mentioned this wonder product in an earlier post.

Spirulina-Powder

The second factory produces glossy ganoderma, a fungus which the Chinese have been consuming for the last two thousand years for its medicinal properties and which has a renewed lease of life as a possible anti-cancer drug.

glossy ganoderma

The two factories were quite distant from each other as well as from the nearest airport at Wuyishan, so our days were long as we drove to each factory, visited them, and of course had long and copious dinners with our hosts and various local worthies such as the mayor or party provincial secretary.  It was with some relief that I saw we had finally arrived back in Wuyishan that last evening of the trip. Alas! I had rejoiced too soon. Wuyishan is an important centre for the tea trade, with scores of tea shops lining the main roads. Our driver, who also happened to be the son of the owner of the spirulina factory, had the great idea of taking us to one of these tea shops. Its owner was a good friend of his, he informed us brightly. He had been so good to us that I didn’t have the heart to say no. So we drew up in front of one of these tea shops, and were greeted effusively by its owner as we got out of the car. He was an Artist, he later informed us, which presumably explained his heartily embracing me; no normal Chinese would ever have done such a thing. It also no doubt explained his pony-tail, something which is now rare in China since the heady days of the birth of the Chinese Republic, when Chinese men everywhere cut off their queues to mark their liberation from Manchu rule.

In any event, he ushered us into his tea house, introduced us to his mother and sister, bid us sit, and quickly made us a cup of tea.

chinese tea ceremony

After a few minutes, and perhaps after a quiet word from his friend the factory owner’s son, he invited us to follow him up some back stairs, to a more private den on the second floor. Here, he had us sit around a table whose top was a square slab of rough stone into which he had carved a Chinese character; this in turn acted as a channel for a little fountain which emerged from the middle of the table’s top. The fountain added a quiet sound of running water to the proceedings. Our host announced that he would be serving us a rare black tea made from just a few kilos of leaves picked every year.

Tea in the mist

He gave us each a little cup which could contain a thimbleful of tea; he had made them himself, he informed us. He then ordered an acolyte who was hovering in the background to pull out his 18th Century Qing cup, which turned out to be even smaller than the ones we had been given and sat on its own tiny wooden table. We all inspected it with great respect. By this time, our host had boiled the water and transferred it to a small cast-iron Chinese teapot. With this, he poured a thin jet of hot water over the cups to warm them, and then added water to the tea. He let it stand for a while, then filled our little cups.

We all sipped our tea – I, out of the Qing cup – and murmurs of appreciation rose up. Now, I don’t pretend to be a tea connoisseur. In fact, I keep it a secret in China that I drink my black tea with milk and sugar. This would put me quite beyond the pale for most Chinese if it ever became common knowledge. And I have never appreciated the green tea which I am routinely offered here. But I actually liked the tea our host had offered us! It did indeed leave a mildly sweet aftertaste, as he had predicted. We drank a few more thimblefuls, after which he declared he would have us try another black tea. This one, he said, was even rarer. Just a kilo or so was collected every year, from one wild tea tree whose location he kept deeply, deeply secret.

old tea treee

It had to be sort of slurped to appreciate its taste, he instructed us. I duly sort-of slurped the tea and was astonished to discover a mild chocolaty aftertaste. Yes, my host smiled, that’s what many say.

As we continued to drink the tea, our eyes started to wander around the room, taking in the various ceramic pieces placed on the shelves around us. Our host began to take them down to let us inspect them. This small cup was Song, he said – Song! Oh  –– My –– God! I love Song ceramics!

song cup

– while this one was early Ming, he continued, and that shallow bowl was Qing. My head whirled. And as we sat there, sipping our tea and holding the ceramic pieces gingerly, oh! so gingerly, I felt for a moment – an instant – like a Chinese scholar of yore, sitting in my study, sipping my favourite tea, gently turning my ceramic pieces in the light, murmuring that Tang love poem I loved so much – and wondering if I would ever pass the next level of those damned imperial examinations …

chinese scholar-2

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Fujian red: http://3.bp.blogspot.com/-kvSw6A0btv8/UIlzv5xNqLI/AAAAAAAAAkw/T0MCEP9zCSE/s1600/goldenmonkey_base.jpg
Spirulina powder: http://spirulinapowder-review.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/07/Spirulina-Powder.jpg
Glossy ganoderma: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/d/d7/Jreishi2.jpg
Chinese tea ceremony: http://2.bp.blogspot.com/_UERtENI3oaU/TKzqT_cEx2I/AAAAAAAABvM/ENJO27ZhxiI/s400/chinesetea2.jpg
Fresh tea leaf: http://www.pingminghealth.com/wp-content/uploads/2009/12/green-tea-leaf.jpg
Old tea tree: http://www.puerh.fr/dynamic//files/system/articles/80/17.jpg
Song cup: http://p2.storage.canalblog.com/21/37/577050/46025483_p.jpg
Chinese scholar: http://images.visitbeijing.com.cn/20121011/Img214758300.jpg

LAPSANG SOUCHONG

Beijing, 5 March 2013

Whenever I stayed with my English grandmother in London, one of my tasks was to do the food shopping for her. She expected this service from all her visiting grandchildren, along with other services such as doing the washing-up and hoovering the floors. My grandmother was of a generation that expected grandchildren to serve her and not her to serve them. A lesson, I think, for the Chinese who to my British eye dote far too much on their little princeling children and grandchildren. In any event, my grandmother would write out a detailed shopping list and I would hurry down – no loitering, please – to the nearby high street to buy the necessary. And there they were, all lined up: the fishmonger, with his marble slabs on which were slapped the fish surrounded by ice, the butcher, with his pieces of meat hanging in the window, the baker, with his loaves neatly stacked up behind him, and the green grocer, with all manner of greens in boxes outside as well as in. I would join the polite throng of people, wait my turn – another lesson for the Chinese, many of whom seem not to have heard of the concept of queuing – and paid out in pounds, shillings, and pence.

I went back to that high street a few years ago – a walk down memory lane. All gone, I am sad to report, their place taken by “boutiques”. As I survey high streets around Europe, it seems to me that no-one eats any more, they just dress. What saddened me even more was the disappearance of the tea emporium of which my grandmother had been a faithful client. Buying tea was not a task that she delegated to her grandchildren. It was a job for Grown Ups. But I did accompany her once or twice on her tea-buying expeditions. It was certainly a very majestic place. First of all, it was not a tea shoppe; this was not a place where one came to drink tea and eat cakes and sit about nattering. It was a place to buy tea – and not, God forbid, tea bags, but loose tea. One wall was covered with shelves holding large copper caddies which contained the teas. There was a series of counters in front of this wall, each carrying a set of old-fashioned brass scales, and the employees – all wearing white coats – would bring the caddies to the counter and reverently ladle the teas onto the scales. It was all very hushed and murmury. These photos give a sense of what greeted us when we entered the shop, although these are really altogether too modern and smart.

tea store-3-hk-1

measuring out tea-4-hk-1

My grandmother bought only one tea – lapsang souchong. This is one of China’s few black teas, some say its first. It comes from the Wuyi region in the southeastern province of Fujian. It has a very distinctive smoky flavour – which is not surprising since the leaves have been smoked over a pinewood fire.

lapsang souchong

My grandmother took her tea twice a day: at breakfast, which she always took in bed, and at 4 o’clock, which she always took in the living room. She drank her tea in porcelain cups with proper saucers and little spoons – no mugs for her.  She had some rather handsome cups and saucers with a Chinese design, perhaps not quite as handsome as this example:

cup and saucer-3She taught me her ritual for making tea, which I have since discovered was a bastardization of the complicated rituals used in China. First, warm the teapot by swirling boiling water in it, then add the leaves to the teapot and pour in a small amount of boiling water, just enough to cover the leaves. Leave them to soak for three minutes, and then add the remaining boiling water. One thing she did, which would have had all the Chinese tut-tutting into their tea, was to add milk and sugar, a habit which I have gladly embraced.

My wife first met my grandmother over a cup of her lapsang souchong tea. She was flying into Gatwick from Milan the autumn after we started going out together; after a day or two in London, we were going up to Edinburgh University. The plan was for me to meet her at Gatwick. In what was to become a regular feature of our married lives, I missed her. Disconsolate, I came back up to London, only to find wife and grandmother happily ensconced in the living room drinking tea.  My wife took a shine to my grandmother and I believe the feeling was mutual. My wife also took a shine to my grandmother’s tea, and later on, when we finally had some money in our pockets, we started to buy lapsang souchong.  But we have never been as rigid as my grandmother was. We drink lapsang souchong but also quite happily drink Twinings tea bags. And we don’t heat up the teapot before adding the leaves.

twinings tea bag

In my very first visit to Beijing, back in 2002, I visited – as was expected of all foreigners – one of the markets. In my case, I visited the pearl market where I actually bought my wife a string of grey freshwater pearls, for the first and probably last time in my life. When I saw a stall selling teas, on a whim I approached them and tried buying lapsang souchong. I mean, what better place to buy Chinese tea than in China, right? But they all looked at me blankly, shook their heads, and muttered “meyo, meyo” [no, no]. So I gave up; it must have been my tone-less pronunciation, I thought. And I had made the cardinal mistake of not bringing with me a piece of paper with the name written on it in Chinese, to show to my interlocutors and thus solve these little problems of tones or lack thereof.

Seven years later, we moved to China. The Empire of Green Tea.

green-tea

In the face of an ocean of green tea, my wife courageously set about finding a local source of lapsang souchong. Her first step was to visit a street listed in our guidebook as a promising source of tea. She took a pinch of our precious lapsang souchong along with her and went door-to-door showing it. “Meyo, meyo”, was always the answer. But she didn’t come back empty-handed. She bought this lovely stoneware tea caddy.

stoneware caddy

After this rather discouraging start, my wife took a break in the lapsang souchong search. To keep us going, we bought a large stock in Milan during our next visit there, in a little shop we know around the corner, and then in London when we visited our daughter six months later. The next round in the lapsang souchong search started when I found the name written in Chinese on the web. Armed with a piece of paper on which I’d cut and pasted the Chinese name, my wife sallied forth again. Surely that would do the trick, we thought. “Meyo, meyo” was again the discouraging reply.

After yet another pause, we discovered Beijing’s tea market. This time we would succeed! Armed with a bag of lapsang souchong, a piece of paper with the name written in Chinese, and determined smiles, we marched through grand shops

beijing tea market-5

the supermarkets of tea

beijing tea market-3

and myriad poky little stalls

beijing tea market-1

showing everywhere our tea and our piece of paper. “Meyo, meyo” always came back the reply. But still we went on. Finally, a girl in a stall shook her head but made us understand that that shop down the hall there and to the right probably had it. With beating hearts, we made our way to the indicated shop and went through our little routine for the nth time. The two girls looked at us, looked at, felt, and smelled our  tea,  had a rapid-fire discussion, and then one of them went off. The other motioned us to sit down at the tasting table. The first came back with a package, shook some tea leaves out, and the second started the routine of preparing tea.

beijing tea market-6

After a little while, she offered my wife a small cup of the tea …

Meyo, meyo! It was, and yet it was not. We tasted it this way and that way, we gave some of ours to the girls so they could make tea with it. We compared. It was clearly of the same family, but it was not the same. Weaker it was, with less punch but also less sweetness.

Ah well, we can just keep stocking up whenever we go back to Europe and maybe, just maybe, before we leave, we’ll find a local source.

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Tea store: http://3.bp.blogspot.com/-LrBKXYQoYaw/T557zpa75oI/AAAAAAAABNg/cjbSvJayuuw/s1600/twg-tea_hk-ifc_tea-boutique-01.jpg
Measuring out tea: http://sg.lifestyleasia.com/var/lifestyleasia/storage/images/media/images/import/article/33/image_339679-twg-tea-master-twg-tea/1837667-1-eng-GB/image_339679-twg-tea-master-twg-tea.jpg
Lapsang Souchong: http://www.chadotea.com/images/T-25-Lapsang-Souchong.jpg
Cup and saucer: http://p2.la-img.com/1870/37984/16159143_1_m.jpg
Twinings tea bag: http://1.bp.blogspot.com/-btpdmHKOX9w/T7dGdhyLXgI/AAAAAAAABdw/OvNObW_-3ck/s1600/IMG_2335.jpg
Green tea: http://www.allaboutladies.net/wp-content/uploads/2012/04/green-tea1.jpg
Stoneware tea caddy: my photo
Beijing tea market-1: http://www.beijingtravelhotelinformation.com/uploads/2009/0706/beijinghighlifeblogMountainTeaintheBigCity.jpg
Beijing tea market-2: http://shinshinshingan.files.wordpress.com/2010/11/jun14_tea_market_interior1.jpg
Beijing tea market-3: http://photos.travelblog.org/Photos/168424/660393/t/6550014-Of-all-the-tea-shops-0.jpg
Beijing tea market-4: http://media-cdn.tripadvisor.com/media/photo-s/03/11/1c/e0/beijing-culture-exchange.jpg